Wolf Skin Ritual

Aha! I think I figured out how to keep you folks with RSS feeds from getting slammed with all the pictures! Let me know if it works.

Anyway, today I did the ritual I had planned to retire my old wolf skin and dedicate the new one. Only a few folks showed up, but it was a good group, and it was a really successful ritual overall. I’ve got a full writeup and some pictures to share here–enjoy!

I’ve been dancing with this old guy since 2002:

He was my very first wolf skin, purchased in the late 1990s, and he told me before I went to my first pagan gathering that he wanted to dance with me. So I split him open, rigged him up with some leather straps to tie him to me, and we went out and danced at the fire circle, with great success! Since then, we’ve danced together around numerous circles. Sadly, I didn’t know much about taking care of hides til much later, and between rainy, damp nights in tents, and heat from the fires, he decomposed over time even though his was a pretty good quality tan.

So I recently made the final payment on my new wolf skin, and wanting to have him dedicated before going to a Beltane festival next weekend, today was prime time for making the ritual happen. Here’s a picture of him right after he arrived in the mail:

At some point I want to post a tutorial on how I got him from that to his present state, but now’s not the time.

So I got things set up for the ritual. Here are a couple of pictures of the altar:

There are some items from the permanent Grey Wolf altar in my art/ritual room, along with my Black Bear rattle which I use to call and send home spirits, a fern frond and a turtle shell of water that I use to purify the ritual area prior to ritual, my ritual knife, and a platter with pouches for part of the ritual later on. You can also see the two hides curled up together, and a collection of spare musical instruments, as well as my own drum.

I started the ritual with purification by sprinkling water with the fern, since I dislike smoke and therefore smudging. (Sprinkling water on people is especially fun depending on their reactions. I’m definitely keeping this!) I then called the various spirits and places of the directions to join us, along with a couple of other beings I wanted to invite, Grey Wolf included.

Then I picked up my old wolf skin and carried him around the altar, talking about our history together, how he taught me to wolf dance, and some of the things we had been through. I talked about how it was going to be our last dance together, and that this was a very special event. Then I put him on for the last time, and while the other participants drummed and rattled, we danced around the altar. I could feel how tired and worn-out he is, but he made a good go of it, and we ended it with three good, long howls.

Then I took him off, and I was crying as I did so. I thanked him one more time for the good years dancing together. I laid him out on the floor, and stretched out the new skin as well. I took the leather straps from the old skin and transferred them to the new skin, whom I had previously prepared.

And then I danced the new skin. And I could most definitely feel the difference! This guy was ready and raring to go! We didn’t so much dance as run, leap, pounce, and gambol. (Yes, I said gambol.) It was tough at times to get him to stay focused on the dancing, which was fine–I’m just glad he was so happy to be moving around again. There’ll be time enough to work out etiquette between us. It was good, though, and I’m looking forward to the fire dancing next weekend.

We then took a break to chow down on the potluck goodies people had brought, and enjoy some social time. After that, I had people bring the small leather pouches I had given them, and I cut off small bits of fur from both wolves and put them in the pouches. Mind you, I never give away fur from my personal wolf skins, so this was a really unusual thing–those who got them received very special gifts. And then I closed down the ritual, said farewell to the assembled (both corporeal and otherwise) and went to ground.

I put the old wolf skin on the permanent altar; here’s a pic:

You can see the Brown Bear altar beneath it, and also some assorted ritual and art effects on the floor at the base. No surprise, I’m already running out of room on the Wolf altar.

And while I didn’t have pics taken during the ritual, here are a few pictures of me in the new wolf skin. (No, that’s not my ritual wear–it’s the outfit I wore during the pics I took for the potential tutorial I may do.)

It takes a very large wolf skin to be able to fit over my 5’4″ frame like that. It’ll take some time for us to adjust to each other; I need to fit the straps properly, and add a couple of others. Also, my arms do fit through the holes that his forelegs went through on the front leg skins, but it’s a tight fit. It’ll loosen over time, though. Still, he fits nicely like my old skin did, and we were very comfortable dancing together.

Also, small bit of timing–my period started in earnest while I was dancing the new skin. Given that the moon is waxing, and Artemis has recently come into my life again, and I am a Luperca in the Ekklesia Antinoou it’s an interesting series of convergences to note.

PantheaCon and the Bear Performance Ritual

So at this year’s PantheaCon in San Jose, CA, I officially did my first big public group ritual. Ever. Really.

See, I’ve been feeling things converging toward taking my practice more public as I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing, and when I’ve checked with both the spirits and human peers, I’ve generally been supported in this. So when the time came to submit workshops and other activities for this year’s PantheaCon, back in the fall, I decided to take the chance of doing a shamanic ritual there. I figured if it got accepted, then it would be a chance for me to really put what I’m doing to the test.

The more I actually practice my shamanism, the more I really find I dislike the one-on-one model of practice, where you just have the shaman and client in isolation, and it’s fairly streamlined, with a little drumming, but not much in the way of pageantry. And I’m really fond of the concept of sacred play and ritual theater as facilitating suspension of disbelief and magical states of consciousness. This is important to my practice because I work with the self as a series of systems–physical, psychological, spiritual, etc. I find it easiest to approach magical work from the psychological angle, but with the understanding that I’m affecting the whole shebang. And play is a great way to engage the psyche.

I also am of the opinion that shaman circles aren’t the way for me to go. I dislike being in a group where it’s basically (please forgive the saying) too many chiefs, not enough indians. Not only does the process have to be watered down to accommodate everyone, but personally, I don’t want, as the presider over the ritual, to be responsible for the safety of a bunch of people in the Otherworld. I do not agree with the common (though not universal) core shamanism assertion that journeying is safer than dreaming (and I don’t even think dreaming is always safe). Just because the place where, for example, Brown Bear lives is close to my starting point and is a relatively safe place for me, doesn’t mean that that place will extend the same courtesy to other people.

Therefore, my conception of a “group ritual” in my shamanic practice isn’t “we’re all gonna journey together and be this raucous drumming party romping through the Otherworld in search of soul fragments and cheap beer”. Instead, I’m fond of the model in which there is a presiding shaman who is the relative expert, and the rest of the community, whether it’s a long-standing one, or part of a Temporary Autonomous Zone, helps to create the space within which the shaman works. That’s where I’ve been trying to go with this concept of shamanic performance ritual.

Other than the Grey Wolf and Brown Bear rituals I’ve done in my home, I haven’t really been able to put this to the test in an actual group setting. I’ve practiced various elements in private in preparation, but nothing is the same as actually doing the work. So the PantheaCon ritual was a way for me to try out, with a larger group and in a different setting, these things that I’d been mostly developing in theory. And it was the first time I’d done work with an in-person client, which I’ll write about more in a bit. (My client had been very aware of this from the beginning and was more than happy to be my guinea pig.)

Because of the experimental nature of this ritual, I made it very, very clear both in the preparation workshop prior to the ritual, and right before the ritual itself, that if anyone did not feel comfortable participating in something that was still basically a work in progress, they were more than welcome to leave before I got started. Also, I specifically chose a ritual with Brown Bear because s/he is the totem I have had the most experience with in spiritual and magical practice; s/he has always been the first to step up when I wanted to try a new practice, and s/he has been my greatest guide in my shamanic work, even more than Grey Wolf. And we negotiated the parameters prior to the ritual itself, so that the ritual was mainly (though not entirely) a formality to enact what we had agreed. So there were a lot of factors in place to minimize potential disasters.

I also made it very, very clear that I did not want anyone following me into the Otherworld while I journeyed. Trancing during the drumming was fine, just so long as the people remained here, and I had (human) helpers keeping an eye on the participants to make sure everyone was okay while I was occupied with my work. I explained in great detail when everyone else would get to drum/chant/etc. along with me as part of helping to maintain that collective space, but I wanted to make the boundaries clear. To be honest, I was a bit worried since neopagans in general are used to a high degree of participation, and the shamanic circle is pretty common in and of itself, so I was worried that people might be bored, or not get what I was trying for. However, the orientation workshop served pretty well to make my points clear to folks what was happening, and why, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of folks.

So what, exactly, happened? Along with the above points, I spent the orientation workshop giving background on my practice over the past decade and change, how I was weaving various disparate threads of practice into a cohesive neoshamanism, and why. I answered questions and addressed concerns, and we all had a really good rapport together.

And then there was the ritual itself. There weren’t as many people as I thought would be there, fewer than twenty, but it was also eleven at night and we were scheduled opposite a drum circle (stiff competition when you’re dealing with a crowd used to being heavy participants). Still, it was a great group, and I was able to get right down to business.

My setup was pretty simple. I had brought my brown bear skin, from a very old rug, and laid her out on the floor with my various tools and offerings to Brown Bear on her. My drum was there, too, and my client had laid out his coat to lay on during the ritual. I also had a bottle of water and a bag of jerky, just in case my weird-ass metabolic issues decided to act up, or if I needed to bring edibles into the Otherworld with me (better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it!)

I started off with a warmup. I believe very much in the power of humor to break people out of their defenses, and so I started off with a few jokes, some banter, and a dirty political limerick, all of which went over quite nicely. It got people to pay attention to me and relax and laugh–and focus.

After this, I greeted the land spirits. I don’t do a circle casting, but I do like to greet the more prominent genii locii, and the four directions make convenient delineations. So I greeted local spirits like the Guadalupe river (who I went to visit shortly before the ritual) and both sets of mountain ranges, as well as evoking my connection to Oregon and the Columbia River, among others. I shook my Black Bear rattle and had everyone else drum, clap, etc. along with me. I ended each evocation with a yell, “HA!”, and by the time I was done everyone was yelling with me–which was great fun. I’m definitely keeping that.

Then it was time for the journey itself. I think this was the toughest part of the performance part of the ritual, because I had anticipated there being more drums than there were and therefore didn’t bother preparing myself to narrate during my journey, which takes more concentration. So people mostly were there watching me sit and drum, and make noise along with me, to help act as a heartbeat to help me find my way back. I need to either figure out how to deal with narration when there may be a lot of noise, or some other way to keep the other people occupied with something besides boring old me sitting and beating on a drum while my spirit’s off elsewhere. The risk of dramatic narration is that if I get too focused on telling people “back home” what’s going on, I find myself slipping back to my body before I’m done with my work. On the bright side, I found that having the heartbeat that people were creating helped me orient back to my body, which was a concern since this was the first big journey I had done from a relatively unfamiliar location.

Brown Bear was sleeping, of course, but s/he woke up long enough to tell me what I needed to do with the offerings to hir and the gift to my client. S/he said s/he wouldn’t come hirself, but that s/he’d send a part of hirself with me to help with the ritual. So I did what s/he told me to, and came back to do the work in this world.

Once I returned, I explained briefly what was going to happen. Then I draped the bear skin over me, and tapped out a basic beat for people to follow. I danced until I felt the spirit of the bear skin, and that tendril of Brown Bear’s energy connect in me, and I became a bear myself. I went to my client and sought out ill areas, and he told me later that the first place I homed in on was a place that had been hurting. I went to these places on his body, and I yanked out, for lack of a better word, buildups of “bad energy”. It wasn’t a full-cure–these are chronic conditions–but it was a way to clear out the crap that had built up on an energetic/spiritual level at the sites of these conditions and bring temporary relief. I then breathed in Bear/bear energy/power/whatever you want to call it into the voids left by these things I removed, snuffling and whuffing like a bear, and tearing out the bad with teeth and claws while putting in the good with breath.

I then gave the client a small gift, and told him what to do with it. Were he local to me, I would see about arranging this to be a regular thing, not as a cure-all, but simply as maintenance. Such as it was, he actually reported immediate, measurable physical improvements in his symptoms–whether you want to call this the placebo effect isn’t as important as the fact that the ritual did what it was supposed to do.

I danced Bear/bear back out, and then did another acknowledgement of the land spirits (again with that fun yell at the end!) I had checked on the other participants at a couple of breaks in the ritual itself, just to be sure everyone was alright, and then again at the end once everything was cleared out and I knew my client was okay.

Unfortunately, I didn’t do such a great job of making sure I was okay. I spent most of the rest of the weekend pretty fragged and fatigued, partly due to not grounding properly, but also because I’ve found that shamanic work takes more out of me, physically and otherwise, than any other spiritual and magical work I’ve ever done–and that includes the crazy-ass chaos magic experimentation I did a number of years ago. I now have a much better idea of why people talk about the sacrifices associated with shamanic practice, and why my instincts were screaming at me to dig my heels in when the spirits were still unsuccessfully trying to convince me to do this stuff in the first place. Granted, I already had insomnia and metabolic issues, but they and the shamanic work like to play into each other post-ritual, and I’m still learning to find a good balance of self-care with this sort of work.

My client, and other people, really seemed to appreciate the ritual itself for a variety of reasons. And I learned quite a bit from it about how to proceed in the future, what worked, and what needs more adjustment. Most importantly, though, it reaffirmed for me that yes, this is what I need to be doing. More on that later. For now, I’m going to continue recovering, and assessing the results of my work.

Grey Wolf Ritual

Today was the ritual for Grey Wolf. I hadn’t even consciously planned the ritual for today; I just chose a date that seemed convenient. Just so happens that tonight is a blue moon, and the Wolf Moon, or so I was informed. Which is funny, because I inadvertently scheduled the Brown Bear ritual on a full moon, too.

So Tay helped me clear out the living room again. I set up the altar on the coffee table; once again, apologies to those on the LJ feed as I can’t put in cuts from here:




I collected what little wolfish knickknacks I still have and put them on the altar; I’ve gotten rid of most of them over the years as I’ve downsized my collection of shiny objects. There was also the wolf skull that hangs with my collection, and a deerskin painting I did a number of years ago. The beadwork strips are the first two I ever did, way back in high school in the mid-90’s. That actually gives Wolf a connection to my artwork, since that all started with the beadwork (which I no longer do). The long green and brown thing with the bone spike on the end is a hair wrap I wore for a year, and there are a couple of other random things on there. And the wooden plate has the little gift pouches I gave to the participants.

You can also see the Arctic wolf headdress and tail I wear when journeying, and the full wolf skin I’ve danced with for most of a decade. There’s my big drum, and a couple of spares, as well as the elk bells I made last year. Between the drums is the wolf fur coat that’s part of my costume, to be worn (of course) if I get cold. The blanket that covers the altar is just temporary, until in the spring when I retire my old wolf skin to altar guardian duty.

So once everyone got settled in, I did a brief explanation of what I was doing there today. I explained a bit of the context of why I’m creating therioshamanism the way that I am, with the cultural context and why I’m trying to revive performance rituals as an art form as well as spiritual practice. Then I picked up my drum and began to warm it up, explaining to people why I was doing that.

The journey itself was actually one of the fastest I’ve ever done. When I went to go formally invite Grey Wolf to join us, s/he said “Geez, you didn’t even need to come here; all you had to do was ask and I’d show up”. Which isn’t surprising given how omnipresent s/hes been in my life. But I wanted to be formal about things, and so s/he humored me. (“Should I have snarled and snapped at you when you showed up, just for show? Grrrrr! Look at me! I’m fierce!” s/he said.)

So then Wolf sent me back and said s/he’d follow, even though she knows the way quite well. When I got back and cooled the drum down, I then told the other folks there that now, instead of just drumming along to my single-note journeying beat, we got to do fun drumming! They began drumming, and I put my wolfskin on and began to dance (after taking the journeying headdress and tail off!) It was a bit of a sad event for me, since it would be the last full dance I’ll be doing with that skin. We slid into each other’s energy has we always have, and while the dance was indoors in a relatively small space, it was a good one. While I could wish for a place to do outdoor dancing around a fire on a regular basis, for now, the living room works.

Once I was done dancing, and while we still drummed, we talked some about what Grey Wolf was to us, our relationship to that totem. I also spoke a bit about my wolfskin and what we had done over the years. Then we took a break to enjoy the various edibles people had brought and ground a bit. Finally, I closed down the ritual, thanking Wolf and the other spirits who had been there for their presence.

After everyone left, I set up the permanent altar in my ritual/art room:

There were offerings a couple of people had brought that I added in. The wolf skull went back to its usual place on the wall near the altar, and the various skins went to their homes as well.

One of the things I noticed is that I enjoy throwing in little bits of explanation for why I do things as I do them, just to give people an idea of the reasons for things. I think I may make this more of a regular feature of the public rituals.

Also, while I’m still new to this whole group ritual thing, I want to try building up more formality around the rituals–for example, I would have loved to have had a themed potluck, preparing some kind of meat (maybe venison) for the occasion and letting people bring other things for Grey Wolf (with allowances for non-meat-eaters, etc.)

And it’s tougher to build up a good atmosphere for this sort of ritual indoors than it is outdoors, or in a space that is specifically designed for ritual work. But we work with what we have, and I’m sure I can tweak things to create a better setting as time goes on. While I’m very good at individual ritual, group ritual is still new to me, and so it’s going to take practice.

But overall, it went really well, and people seemed to get a lot out of it. Grey Wolf was pleased as well, and is happy to have a formal “home” within my home now.

The Importance of Ritual Tools

First of all, I just want to make a brief announcement–for those of you who will be attending PantheaCon next month, I will be doing a Brown Bear healing ritual as part of the official programming on Saturday night of the con at 11pm; there’ll be an optional-but-recommended informational meeting at 9pm to give folks context.

Now for my main topic, brought on by a conversation with a friend over on Livejournal. S/he was talking about ritual tools, and mentioned the attitude (which s/he does not hold to hirself) that a lot of pagans have that advanced practitioners “don’t need” ritual tools, that one “should” be able to practice one’s magic and spirituality empty-handed, and with the subtle undercurrent that this is the superior way of doing things.

To which I say: fuck that noise.

Okay, okay, so I can accept that that attitude sprang out of reactions to the countless n00bs who tend to be more interested in the pretty shiny objects than in what to do with them. (This happens with all sorts of things, not just spiritual practice. Magpie Syndrome reigns supreme.) But it’s not necessarily true that you grow out of that liking for tools and toys. It’s just that your understanding of them should ideally deepen and develop further.

Personally, I like my collection of tools. I have my main drum, and a smaller one thats mostly become a loaner at this point. I have several skins that I dance, and I’m slowly building altars to individual totems. Plus there’s my general shamanic costumery. Add in that I enjoy making ritual tools, and its pretty clear what side of the divide I’m on.

Part of it’s my animistic tendencies. When I “work with” ritual tools, it’s not as with inanimate objects, but with other spirits embodied in other forms. That’s why I ask my drum and beater, for example, for permission to pick them up, never mind starting to pound them against one another. It’s respect, and acknowledgement of their being spirits.

Creating ritual tools, for me, is a process of working with the spirits within the materials I’m working with. As I explain in detail in Skin Spirits, my newest book that just came out, I work with the spirits in animal remains, hides and bones and other things. This has been a consistent part of my practice for over a decade, and a lot of it I do to give them a better afterlife than being a coat or a taxidermy trophy. That’s why they all get a ritual done for them to help them find the best people who will appreciate them for who and what they are. And with my own tools, I’m not just picking up inanimate objects–I’m handling these spirits’ physical forms/dwellings. They’re right there; I don’t need to go looking all over the Otherworld for them.

Just as important is the concept of suspension of disbelief, of sacred ritual play. As you may have noticed, I’m a huge fan of this concept. Rituals are a time and place apart from the everyday, though ideally they should not be completely removed from it–your journey’s no good if you can’t effectively bring back what you found to the world you spend most of your time engaging with. Suspending your disbelief allows you to temporarily set aside the mental barriers that keep you from Imagination-with-a-big-I, or the spirit world, or however you want to explain That Other Place. We don’t live there permanently for good reason, but it can be very beneficial to visit at times. And, as Joseph Campbell liked to point out, ritual performance is a form of play, something that is vital to a healthy human psyche. Not all rituals are fun, but the play, the engaging of Other Than Ordinary Reality for a time, as well as Czikszenmihalyi’s flow state, serves its own purpose above and beyond the extrinsic reasons.

To my mind, empty-handed rituals take the play out of ritual. As a culture, Americans in particular have a tendency to hyper-intellectualize just about everything. So it’s not surprising that so many American pagans would espouse a form of ritual that primarily engages the mind, leaving much less for the body and other levels of being to work with. Sure, you can do an entire ritual sitting in asana, crafting the ritual temple solely in your head while your body remains perfectly motionless save for carefully timed breathing. But you’re missing out on a lot of potential benefits of engaging more of yourself, starting with your body. The mind is not isolated from the rest of being; psychosomatic illnesses and distress from being ill are good examples. So my thought is that trying to isolate the mind away from the rest has a good chance of not being particularly healthy in a lot of instances.

Ritual tools keep us firmly grounded in the physical reality, even as we soar to other places. Additionally, when we’re back in ordinary reality, they’re a constant reminder of what we’re capable of. They’re a bridge between the worlds, and they help facilitate the transition back and forth. Like the horse spirit in the drum, they are the transportation we use, and they help keep us balanced. They are inherently marked as special, and they continuously attract and reinforce our attention in a way that mental castles never can.

The trick isn’t to transcend the use of tools. The trick is to find the tools that are most effective for flipping the internal switches in your mind–and other parts of your self, body included–that make your rituals work. Yes, it’s possible that the best tools for you may be entirely mental. But for a lot of us, we benefit from and thoroughly enjoy the use of the physical tools themselves. After all, if playing an air guitar were the epitome of play, then Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn’t have a market.

(Yes, I totally just compared ritual practice to video games. Blame my geekhood.)

If you do prefer open-handed ritual, don’t consider that to be automatically superior to those of us monkeys who like our tool use to be a little more blatant. The shiny surfaces are connected to much deeper things, and, unlike many of those n00bs who are just figuring things out, we know not to mistake the map for the territory.

Dead Critters

I’ve just sent in the final .pdf proof of my next solo book, Skin Spirits: Animal Parts in Spiritual and Magical Practice, which should hopefully be out in the next couple of months. Already there are things I wish I could add in, even though I know there’s a certain point where one has to say “Okay, the book is done, get it out there!”

Over the past few months I’ve been working with my relationship with Death. It’s a rather uneasy one. I haven’t had anyone really close to me taken suddenly, and the deaths among family and friends have been few. This has historically caused me to feel anxious about Death, and what it will be like the first time I do lose someone close without warning. Plus, of course, there’s dealing with my own mortality, especially as I’ve entered into my early thirties, and I don’t feel quite so immortal as I did in my twenties.

One of the alterations I’ve made to the rituals I go through when purifying things I’ve made out of animal parts is to consider the mortality of my own flesh. I look at the hides and the bones lying prone and dead on the floor, and I then look at my own flesh, and the bones beneath it, and I contemplate the fact that some day this vehicle that I am intimately connected to 24/7 will cease to move, and will be akin to the remains around me. It makes me even more appreciative of being able to work with the remains of these once-living beings, and by extension being able to continue my life by eating the remains of animals and plants that were only recently still alive.

It’s like the (in)famous epitaph on certain gravestones, which are variants of this:

Remember Man as you go by
As you are now so once was I
As I am now so shall you be,
Prepare yourself to follow me*

And this all goes back to a large part of why I work with animal parts in my art and spirituality. Yes, there’s practicality to it, but there’s also reverence. I never view the skins and bones as trophies, or toys, or really even as possessions. It is a privilege to work with them in the way that I do, aware of the death that occurred, and that these were once warm, living beings the same way I am now.

I know I can’t inspire the same reverence in those who buy my artwork, but it’s my hope that at least some of them will see what I create as more than just “pretty shinies”. I know there will be people, for example, who buy the totemic dance tails as fashion accessories, not as connections to archetypal spiritual beings, or even the individual spirits of the animals whose tails they were when living. And I know that some of the things I create as ritual tools will end up instead as part of people’s “collections of dead things”, more for display than active work.

But that’s why I do the spiritual work I do, and then write about it, and how others can utilize it. Because some people will pick up on what I do, and adopt it to their own practices.

And it’s also why I do the food totem work that I do, honoring the totems of the animals and plants whose physical counterparts I eat to stay alive. I cannot live without killing something, unless I went entirely fruitarian, and even then some would argue that eating seeds contributes to the loss of potential life.

I don’t take Death for granted any more. No matter whether the death was from a trap or bullet or disease in the wild, or by gas or electrocution after a lifetime in a cage; no matter whether the intention of the death was for food or for fur; no matter whether the death was at the hands of humans, or another animal; no matter whether it occurred after two weeks or two centuries; the fact is that some living being ceased to be a part of this life and the world that I still have the privilege to interface with, and that is reason for a moment of solemnity, moreso if I was directly involved with that death.

All of the afterlife theories in the world cannot provide incontrovertible proof that there’s anything once the body shuts down. That objective uncertainty is even more reason to be aware of when we send another being into that unknown before us, and to be aware of the fact that someday we’ll be there, too. Not necessarily to dwell in gloom over it, but to simply consider the immense change we are facilitating when we contribute to a death.

* Of course, there’s also the witty reply to this: “To follow you I am not content/How do I know which way you went?”

Bear Ritual

Today I led my first “official” group ritual as a practicing (neo)shaman. Brown Bear has been nudging me to try out some of the ritual techniques and practices I’ve been developing over the past few months to see how they’d work out, and s/he said s/he had wanted a ritual hirself, so this was a good opportunity. I put everything together pretty quickly since it’s getting into hibernation time, but it all worked out.

We ended up clearing out the living room, moving the dining table into the kitchen temporarily, and pushing the couches against the walls. Then the little table in front of the TV ended up doing double duty as an altar and place to keep my ritual implements when I wasn’t using them. Here are a few pictures (apologies to those on the LJ feed who don’t have the benefit of an LJ-cut for this):



The hide covering the altar is an old skin, possibly bear but not entirely sure, that was left on my porch at our old place–we think we know who it was. It’s incredibly old, just about falling apart, probably from somewhere in the early 20th century. The other hide, the bearskin in the foreground on the second picture, is my ceremonial skin–she was an oooooold rug I got at an antique shop over a decade ago. I removed all the rug stuff, and while she’s very delicate, some mink oil helped to rehydrate her. Still, she’s many decades old, and I have to be very careful with her.

There’s also a rattle made from a black bear skull and a deer leg bone that I use to call in the spirits, and a deerskin bag that holds some of my other Brown Bear items. The plate in the center has small Bear packets that would be given out during the ceremony. Leaning against the altar are my big drum, a small drum that was my starter drum but is now a spare, and the elk antler bells I made a while back. And the white fur is the wolf headdress and tail that I wear while journeying, as I journey as a white wolf. There’s also a very small bear statue on there, along with a packet of small bear fetishes leftover from making the gift packets for participants.

There ended up being seven of us total–me, Taylor, the three practitioners that I took on as students a while back, and who are now going off in their own unique directions with the material, and two other folks from the local pagan community who wanted to attend.

I began with rattling in the spirits that I wished to have in attendance, calling them each by the name they wished to be known by. I didn’t call in everyone, because not all the spirits would have been a good fit for this ritual. Black Bear also helped to let me know who to welcome. I then warmed up my drum, rubbing it with my hand and then with the beater. After that I called the horse spirit of the drum with a specific beat that I use.

Once that spirit came out of the drum, I began the journey drumming, and I asked the rest of the participants to drum with me to help me get to where I was going. I had journeyed to see Bear the day before to take hir a preliminary offering and to check in with hir about last details for today, but I didn’t want to make the assumption that s/he would automatically come to the celebration we had set up for hir. So I went with my bearskin spirit, and once we got to Bear’s den, I asked everyone to stop drumming since they had gotten me to where I needed to be, and to simply listen as I told what I experienced as it happened.

The bearskin spirit and I went down cautiously into Bear’s den, even though we had been there before. Bear was there, and grumbly because s/he was sleepy. I very carefully asked hir whether s/he would like to come with us to the celebration and to see the gifts for hir, and also to place hir energy/scent on the bear packets I had made. S/he grumbled some more, and then told me that if s/he was going to show up, I would have to dance for hir, wearing the necklace I had made for hir before. The bearskin spirit and I then retreated. I had been keeping the drumbeat slow and quiet throughout all this, trying to keep myself calm, but turning my back on Bear was frightening, and I fought to keep the beat slow and quiet as we went back up to the surface.

The horse of my drum carried me back as the participants all drummed and rattled again to help bring me back home. Then they drummed more as I carefully draped the bearskin over me, put the necklace on, and danced like a bear. It was odd, because I’m used to wolf dancing up on my toes (and I also walk on my toes as a matter of course), but bear dancing required me to stay on my heels. Plus the movement is much different, a larger animal, with a different heft of momentum.

And Bear did arrive, using the dance as a vehicle. I growled and whuffed and sniffed at the altar and the goodies on it–and the food people had brought, too. Once the dance was done, I talked a bit about my relationship to Bear, and also gave folks some time to interact with Bear on their own. Then we got to the food! I still held Bear inside me to an extent, and let hir taste the food through me. There were many good things–foccacia bread, and containers of fresh berries and grapes (which Bear loved). And I made cookies, too, with applesauce I made from scratch earlier this year and gave to Bear as yesterday’s offering. (Eating offerings in celebration is apparently a perfectly acceptable way to deal with the physical portions.)

Then once that was done, I thanked all the spirits for being there, most of all Bear, and we drummed for them a while, and I danced as I drummed. Then I rattled them back home, and saw the attendees out.

I got the permanent Brown Bear altar set up in my ritual/art room:


There’s the Bear bag, and also the assorted stone bear fetishes. There’s also a bear claw carved from horn that was offered by one person, and some sage and herbs offered by another, all of which will stay on the altar. And there are some spare packets from the ritual that will probably end up being gifted to people who could use a boost of Bear energy, as it were. No doubt I’ll add more stuff as time goes by, but that’s a good start. Incidentally, the table above it will be a Wolf altar, once the time comes for that. (The other hide is normally on my main altar, where I returned it after the ritual was done.)

Overall, I think it went really well. I was nervous as hell, but managed to keep myself focused on the ritual itself. The feedback confirmed that others enjoyed it, too. One of the things that concerned me is that in neopaganism group rituals usually involve a lot of participation on everyone’s part. The whole spectator thing is often considered to be “boring”, or so I had feared. But as a performance ritual, this seemed to work out really well.

The other thing I noticed was how quickly I got to my starting point with the help of everyone else drumming/rattling! It was like having a huge push behind me as the horse carried me there. Between that, and Bear’s den being very close to my starting point, plus it being a pretty straightforward, mostly pre-arranged task, the ritual itself didn’t last too long, under a half an hour [ETA: the portion prior to the food, I mean]. But it was strong, and I know I’m on the right track with this. There’s some fine-tuning that needs to be done, and things will get better with experience, but for a first time out, I’m really pleased, and everyone else (including Bear) seemed to agree.

Directional No More?

I’m continuing to refine my ritual structure. If you look at the very early posts in this blog, you’ll note that my practice was originally pretty heavily influenced by my background in generic Wicca-flavored neopaganism; my first six months involved a directional/elemental approach to revisiting the basics to get some grounding, and to establish something of a regular focus. I’m really trying to get away from that. I can’t completely start over from scratch without tossing out all the valuable things that I’ve learned and developed over the years, but the past two years have involved a lot of reassessing what of my previous practice was something I wanted to carry over into my shamanic work, and what was simply something that no longer worked for me.

Since the very early time of my practice, I’ve done a fairly typical circle-casting, greeting totem animals I associated with the four cardinal directions–Gray Wolf at North, Brown Bear at West, Red-tailed Hawk at East, and a variety of animals, most recently Red Fox, at South. Along with these directional totems came the standard neopagan, derived from ceremonialism and old grimoires, elemental and other correspondences. And for years, that sort of abstracted structure worked pretty well.

However, now I’m really interested in creating a practice based on my immediate experiences and environment. Granted, to an extent there are still some things that don’t quite fit that model; for example, I’ve still never met a gray wolf in the wild, and my only experience with elk has been nearly getting run over by a pair of them in a dark field at night. My totemic work nonetheless is something that is still central to my path, and I’ll still continue to work with totems whose physical counterparts I don’t have much direct experience with, even as I increase my work with those whom I have, such as Scrub Jay.

But in thinking about how I want to structure formal rituals, I find that the cardinal directions don’t really have much in the way of personal meaning, and the totems I associated with them were mostly arbitrarily drawn from early neoshamanic readings, other than the South totem, who has always represented the change in my life at the time. Or, rather, it’s the concept of the directions themselves that don’t really resonate with me now that I’m doing more shedding of rote correspondences.

What is important to me are the natural landmarks and other phenomena found near the physical location where I am doing a ritual. For example, at home I have the Cascades to the east of me, the Columbia River to the north, Johnson Creek to the south, and the Pacific Ocean to the west, all at varying distances. And that’s not even including the urban spirit of Portland and all that includes.

So I’m thinking that what I’m going to do is focus on, prior to the ritual, familiarizing myself with local landmarks surrounding the place where the ritual will happen. At home this won’t be an issue, but if I do any traveling, it’ll necessitate some research, as well as introducing myself to the Land itself, and seeing if any of the spirits in particular request/require acknowledgment or permissions. It seems more appropriate than simply greeting fairly generic directions, though it also takes more work (and some people may prefer the quicker broad-brush “spirits of the North, etc.” I’m not even thinking the actual directions they’re in in relation to me would be all that important in and of themselves, other than as a note of orientation (what if the biggest nearby body of water is to the traditionally airy east, not the watery west, for example?)

The thing I need to remember, as a final thought, is that this path is of my own creation. If I want to do it properly, I need to be deliberate about it, and have good reasons for what I do and why. There’s a lot of freedom in being able to create one’s path essentially from scratch, but there’s also the lack of inherent checks and balances that normally come from working within an established path, or developing with a group. I was talking to someone I met today at the Esoteric Book Conference about how I have people that I trade notes with and go to with questions. Sometimes the practices these people engage in resonate strongly with me. But I don’t just copy what they do and say I’m doing the same thing. Ultimately there’s a lot of “me” in what I’m creating, and if I just took things whole-cloth from others without really considering why I adopted those things, and whether they really fit for me, then I’d be doing everyone a disservice.

Thus it is that I’m rethinking the whole circle-casting-inspired, generic-correspondence-laden approach to opening a ritual that I’ve been used to, and trying to come up with something that better fits this thing that I’ve been putting together formally for two years now.

Elk’s Journey, Elk’s Gift

Today I did my first journey for a purpose other than exploration. I’ve been doing a lot of internal work lately, trying to work through the unhealthy conditioning and behavior patterns associated with depression and especially anxiety. They’re not a constant active influence in my life, but they do have a tendency to pop up with the right amount of stress in my life. I don’t like them, they don’t like me, and since I had an open invitation from Elk for help with emotional regulation, I decided to take hir up on it.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about trying to develop a more formal ritual structure, but not based on the generic Wicca-flavored neopagan ritual structure I used to use. One of the challenges of essentially creating a practice from scratch is that there’s no authority telling me “Well, you need to do things this way or that”. I’m the one who decides, for the most part. The spirits will occasionally have a suggestion, but as far as they’re concerned, most of this is for my benefit and (eventually) the benefit of anyone I do this sort of work for. I have a desire for formality, though, so it’s up to me to create something appropriate that works.

Before my break over the past few months, when I journeyed I basically asked the drum and beater if they’d work with me, and then we’d drum together and I’d head off to where I needed to be. As I’m coming back, though, I’m finding myself being more deliberate about things. I still ask the drum and beater–and the horse, deer, and elk spirits in them–for permission. But then I warm the drum up with my hand, and then the beater; this is inspired by Ravenari’s method of doing so, and the spirits of the drum and beater really seem to appreciate it. It also helps me to ease out of my everyday headspace with all the concerns and stresses and distractions, and into the focus I need for any sort of ritual work.

I also asked the horse spirit in the drum to carry me to my starting point, instead of taking myself as I normally do. She agreed, and it made the trip a lot smoother, again partly because it helped with transitioning from one headspace to the next. I’m a little rusty, particularly in maintaining the visual aspect of journeying (I’ve always had trouble with consistent, unbroken visuals), but I had a good connection, and even when I let my “sight” relax, I was still definitely over in the spirit world.

So the drum-horse got me to the starting point, and I got onto the ground and turned into a wolf. I then worked to pick up the scent of Elk, and went to find hir. I found hir down in a valley not too far away; s/he’s been expecting me. I went to hir asked formally asked for hir help, turning back to a human being. I then held out a small elk antler tine I had brought with me as a symbol of what we were creating. Elk flinched a bit, and said “That smells like Death. Here, let’s go put it in that stream over there to cleanse it”. So we ran over there, and I placed it in the water, feeling the cool stream over my hand as I looked at the antler against the stones.

Then Elk turned into a human with an elk’s head, and so I turned into a human with a wolf’s head to match. We sat facing each other and spoke about the work we wanted to do together with helping me with emotional regulation. Elk brought up how soon the bull elk would be going into rut, and would be a lot more easily provoked, both by each other and other beings. Like the elk, I can be aggressive when I want something and can’t immediately get it or perceive something in my way. However, Elk pointed out that the bull elk don’t use any more force than necessary, even in rut, because injury is a serious thing when you’re a wild critter. Most confrontations between bull elk only end in one running away, and fights often don’t result in serious injury. (It’s still a lot of work for the bull who has a harem, who may barely eat during rutting season!)

Elk put antlers on my head and said the tine I brought was appropriate because while I can wield my own tines and harm others with them, I can also be injured by someone else’s antlers. Therefore it’s important that I’m doing this regulation work to avoid not only exhausting myself with unnecessary effort, but also injuring others or bringing injury to myself that wasn’t really needed.

Additionally, Elk talked about how there is a season to all things. There are times to be aggressive to get what I want, but that’s not all the time. I need to learn which time is which. With regards to depression and anxiety, these conditions are attempts to gain control–which is an illusion. I can’t control the world around me beyond a very limited scope, and the anxiety and depression are my way of trying to grasp at control in a situation where I feel like things are getting out of control. These are obviously maladaptive, and the better choice is to learn to adapt and roll with the punches that life throws–because nothing is ever going to be perfectly safe and secure, and that”s alright. So instead of facing the world with antlers lowered and ready, I need to learn to relax and only react when it’s actually warranted, and only to the degree that it needs to happen.

Then Elk had me retrieve the tine from the stream so I could take it back home with me, as a physical reminder of my commitment to healing myself with Elk’s help. I then offered Elk a set of three brass bells that I had brought with me as a gift for helping me. Elk laughed and said that s/he would have done this for me anyway, but that s/he appreciated the gift. S/he told me I could go; I stood, and waited to watch hir leave, but s/he just stood there waiting for me to go! Finally, s/he snorted and stomped, and I took off, with hir laughing in amusement as I did so.

I scrambled back up out of the valley to where the horse spirit was waiting. I climbed onto hir back, and s/he took me home. Soon as I came out of the journey and brought the drum back down again, I treated the drumskin to some mink oil; she’d been feeling dry and thirsty, and I’d promised her some treatment. Next, I drilled a hole in the elk tine, and put a piece of deerskin that Deer had donated to the cause. Here’s a pic:

As to the bells? Well, a while back, I believe it was Erynn who had suggested that I add bells to an elk antler that I didn’t know what to do with. So as my gift to Elk, I attached the bells to the ends of three of the tines and wrapped the rest of the antler in braided artificial sinew and waxed linen cord. The bells will later on be used in rituals as a way to help keep me oriented to where my body is so I can find my way back home. Here’s how it turned out:

So it was a successful journey overall, and I feel more confident in satisfying my need for structure. It’s all coming together, piece by piece.

The Journeying Continues…

Tonight I tried my first journey with a purpose beyond exploration. I had a favor to ask of Badger, and so I went to see hir. I had an offering in mind, something I could give hir now, and something later, if s/he would help me.

I asked Small Horse and Small Deer (the drum and beater) for their aid, warmed up the drum, then I played Small Badger’s song to ask him to help me to negotiate with Badger. He was quite pleased that I played the song for him and asked him for his help, though I may make it a habit to make a small offering besides that for the skin spirits and other helpers.

So we all went to go see Badger. I drummed for a bit to let Small Horse and Small Deer take me to the starting point. When I arrived, I sang Badger’s song as loudly as I could, just to let hir know I was there. In retrospect, I could have gone looking for hir, too, but s/he didn’t seem miffed about coming to me instead. This is probably at least in part because s/he was expecting me; we’ve already talked a bit about the situation, and this time I came armed with offerings.

Badger made hirself look very large and impressive, and s/he towered over me, even for being a normally close to the Earth animal. I was sufficiently awed, and s/he and I got down to business. I told hir what I wanted hir help with, and also what offerings I would make. S/he was surprised, though not unpleasantly so, that I was offering something now and something later. S/he knew how important this situation is, and also that it would take some time to complete. So s/he accepted, and I was happy. I sang Badger’s song for hir again, to boast about how wonderful s/he is, which tickled hir even more.

Then I came back, and sang songs for Small Badger and Small Deer, and played Small Horse’s drumbeat, though I don’t have a song for hir yet. I warmed the drum down, and set out to start making things happen on my end.

I am quite pleased to note that my ritual structure is coming together nicely. When I started all this stuff out last year, I was doing things in a much more generically neopagan manner. I did a circle casting with an athame still, and swept the place with a broom beforehand for purification. I won’t say that my ritual structure now is the exact same as such-and-such culture’s shamans do it, because it isn’t. However, the structure has changed quite a bit.

Part of this is due to my beliefs. I no longer feel that I need to create a “world between worlds” to practice in, and I see all space as sacred, even if the Land in one place is tougher for me to connect with than in another place. While I greet the totems at the directions, I don’t do this as part of circumscribing a circle to divide me from the rest of the world. I don’t see myself as calling them, either–they’re already there; I need only remember that.

As I’m also focusing more on journeying, the ritual structure has evolved to support that as a central practice in many of the rituals, preparing me to go in, and helping me to come back out, as well as interact with the spirits at all points throughout. And the drumming has become much more prevalent, essentially having replaced the athame in greeting the directional totems and others.

Obviously, there are things that are in common between the previous structure and what I use now. But these are the most significant changes I’ve ever made, taking whole sections and tools and things out, and adding others in because they work better. It’s made things a lot more effective, even in this relatively short period of time.

So we’ll see how things progress, and what Badger ends up bringing about. While at an earlier point in my life, particularly when I was heavily into Chaos magic, I was very focused on the end results of my magic to determine my success. While that’s still important, what constitutes a good result may vary more than “I asked for X and got X”. It may be something as simple as “I asked for X, but Badger decided that Y would actually be better–and s/he was right”. Or it may end up being something much more complex, something that can’t be quantified in a linear, cause and effect fashion. “Success” is a very subjective notion, and a ritual that didn’t result in the intended way may still end up being more success than failure.

Not that I’d mind getting what I asked for, of course 😉

A Slight Change in Plans

One thing about not being a part of a culture that has an ingrained shamanic path is that would-be shamanic practitioners don’t have much of a standard framework to go on, relatively speaking. A lot has to be done from scratch, including things like cosmology, relationships with spirits, ritual practices, and so forth. On the one hand, this can make it frustrating if you tend to worry “Am I doing this correctly? Should I maybe do it like those people over there? Or do I just read another book and keep listening to the spirits?” However, it can be advantageous in that it offers a decent amount of flexibility.

I did a drum journey to meet with the Animal Father tonight to try to confirm some murmurings I’d overheard from a few of the totems in the past several days. I first found myself clinging to the trunk of my tree, unsure whether to climb up into the branches, or down into the roots. However, I was told to simply drop off onto the grass, and start walking. I found myself in a forest that eventually led to a place here that is very special to me as well as to the Animal Father, but whose exact location is to be kept secret. I proceeded to a particular place, and made myself comfortable.

As I did, numerous animals came out of the trees. Some were native to the area, some were not. As they congregated, the Animal Father appeared as well, and approached me. He was smaller than I sometimes see him, maybe the size of a small black bear. He sat across from me and held my head in his paws and gave me a gift. Then he told me to stop drumming, and to lay back. I did, and he sat behind my head and held it in his forepaws again.

The short version of our conversation involved my work for the next several months. While I’m to continue creating songs and dances for the various skin spirits and corresponding totems I’ll be working with, I also am supposed to start doing more formal work with the totems and skin spirits who already have songs–Wolf and Small Wolf, Badger and Small Badger, Deer and Small Deer, and Coyote and Small Coyote. Additionally, I need to create songs for Bear and Small Bear as soon as possible.

Of these five, only Coyote and Small Coyote are of a species that I haven’t had much experience with. The others are ones I’m quite comfortable working with. In addition, I’ll be working with Horse, and my Small Horse will be my next drum. I’ve been pondering what sort of skin I’ll have on my full ritual drum (as opposed to the small practice drum I have right now), and last week I went to a drum circle where I had a chance to play drums of various sorts. The one that really stood out to me, both in sound quality and in spirit, was a 20″ horsehide with a cedar frame. I’ve had a relationship with Horse since I was a young teenager; it hasn’t always been a good relationship on my end, but Horse has been steadily, patiently there. Add in that Horse has historically stepped in on matters of travel, as well as crucial periods of growth, and it’s not surprising that I’d be drawn to a horsehide drum for journeying.

So, back to the journey at hand with the Animal Father. Once he said what he had to say, he went back into the woods, and the animals began to depart as well. I did stop Badger, though, to ask hir if she would be willing to work with me in a formal ritual. S/he asked me, “What will you offer me?” I replied “What do you want?” S/he stopped then, and looked very pointedly at me, then said “That’s a dangerous response at this level of the game. You’d be wiser to come in to such a situation with something already in mind to drive your bargain with. Come back when you have something to offer me”. Then s/he shuffled off into the woods.

This startled me momentarily, but in retrospect it doesn’t surprise me. While in the past the totems and other spirits I’ve worked with have been relatively lenient with me, shamanism is much more…hmmm…intense than my previous work, relatively speaking. There’s less room for errors (though I wouldn’t say no room for errors). And it was a good reminder to me to take care, that what worked before may not be the parameters I’ll be working with from here on out.

I drummed myself back home, as it were, and got myself grounded with some good food. I’m going to have to think of something significant that I can offer; what I’ll be asking for will be bigger than what I usually do, and more will be asked in return. I’ve had a lot of leeway in the past with regards to offerings, but if I’m going to be stepping up to do more serious shamanic work, I’m also going to have to accept the changes in how things work.

Which is fine; I expected this would happen. Am I worried? Some. As I said, there’s less room for errors. But I wouldn’t be going forward if I didn’t feel confident in my ability to adapt and grow. And the timing isn’t surprising. Next month it’ll have been a year since I started on this path; before that I’d been working with totems and animal spirits for a good decade from a neopagan (and sometimes Chaos magic) perspective. So it’s probably to be expected, at least to an extent.

I’m still here, amazingly enough, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s what’s most important.